How My Bipolar Disorder Is Like the Three-Headed Dog in 'Hercules'
People talk about the black dog of depression and that’s never sat quite right with me. I mean firstly I love dogs and this dog sounds kind of like a black Labrador and black Labradors are cute and depression is ugly and that seems kind of unfair to the black Labrador. But then maybe that’s because I have bipolar disorder not depression.
But if my mental health challenges were going to be any kind of dog, it would be Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology, whose name I only know because it was in the Disney version of “Hercules.” This dog has several heads and my bipolar has several heads too. I suppose if I were to explain my bipolar to you, Cerberus might be a good place to start.
There is a very big misunderstanding that bipolar disorder essentially means to swing between “happy” and “sad.” Type “bipolar” into Google and the first thing you’ll see are a series of memes and hilarious quotes based on my ability to be both hilarious and a mess in mere minutes. Bipolar disorder is characterized and largely diagnosed by its depression and mania, but between these two extremes are hypomania, low mood and mixed state.
So my first Cerberus’s head would be mania because the type of bipolar I have is type I. This means I have more manic episodes than depressive and I imagine this head would look like a toddler when it sees cake and then starts crying because it’s all just too exciting. There is an assumption that mania means you are super super happy all the time. This is certainly how some people experience it — some people feel great, they might hear and see cool things like angels chatting to them or they might feel like the bees knees and write novels and be the life and soul of the party. Others, like me, experience this right up to the point where it gets a little messy. How quickly this happens varies for me. At this stage, I might hear and see cool things but then those things might become frightening. I might think I’m the bees knees until I become worried people are talking about me. I might come up with cool, earth shattering ideas, but those ideas might become too quick to hold onto and they make my head hurt. At that point, being manic isn’t fun and I just want to sleep and slow right down and that’s what my medication helps me do.
So the next one would be hypomania and this head would be wearing sunglasses and maybe drinking a brandy by the fire because to me hypomania feels like a brandy in the warmth. Hypomania is what many experience before becoming manic. For some this can last a while and for others they can zip right through it. Hypomania for me feels like all of the manic things turned down a notch so I can enjoy them. When I’m hypomanic, I’m super productive. Any housework to do? I’ll blitz the whole house in two days and I’ll stay up all night to do it! Got an essay to write? No worries! I don’t need to sleep or eat so I can just get right on to it. I feel really cool but usually I’m not being as cool as I think I am and often I’m just being weird. Sometimes I think I’ve suddenly gotten really fit and I’ll exercise for hours only to crash a week or so later and realize I’m actually still a slob. I like hypomania for its productivity and creativity but it’s near impossible to stay in this phase so when I notice it, I have to keep tabs and make sure I sleep and eat well so it doesn’t escalate.
The next head would be “low mood.” This head would look how you feel when it’s hot and any movement feels like unbelievable effort and you’re wondering since when it became such a struggle to be upright. Low mood for me is slow and sluggish and I don’t really care about anything and it’s a good day if I change from my pajamas into my “day pajamas.” I find it hard to focus but unlike mania where my thoughts are too quick, I just don’t really seem to have any thoughts to focus on. For me this is a warning sign that I might become depressed. I have to try and sleep and let people around me know how I’m feeling so I can get the right support. This means checking in with my mental health team and maybe going to stay with my parents for a bit so someone will ensure I am largely fed and somewhat clean.
The final head would be depression, and for me this head would look like dogs in zombie films whose eyes go red and they froth at the mouth. If low mood is slow and sluggish, then for me depression is agitated and itchy. It makes my head hurt and my skin feel sore. Depression feels like when you try to chase your shadow but however hard you try you can’t step outside of yourself and it’s really frustrating. When I’m depressed, I tend to do a lot of walking because if I sit still for too long, I have to think and I don’t like my thoughts. Sometimes I hurt myself and this can be because I am frustrated by my failing body and sometimes this is because the sharpness of the pain grounds me and everything bad collapses for a minute and the pain on my body doesn’t hurt as much as the pain in my head. Most recently, I watched a lot of “Frasier” because nothing bad happens on “Frasier.” The same applied to “Gossip Girl” a few years back, so I think my tastes are maturing. When I’m depressed, I often want to end my life and for me that’s purely because I want to stop. In those moments there doesn’t seem to be another way to do that, but I am getting better at managing those feelings with each recovery.
It would be overly and wonderfully simplistic to assume all these heads remain distinct and consistent all the time but unfortunately, it’s not quite like that. Sometimes my hypomania feels nervous from the get go and sometimes the low mood feels like something is off and disconnected rather than down. If there can be this much variation for me alone you can see how unhelpful it would be to assume we all have exactly the same experiences. We are all unique, we are all people first and foremost and this is what shapes our understanding of our challenges. All we can do is draw comparisons, make small links, notice common experiences and offer support based on these.
Follow this journey on P.S. Bipolar.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via vukkostic.